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Window on the world;The Big Picture

It was meant to be the greatest show of human achievement on earth. But organisers and MPs could not agree on a design, and time was running out. "The Times" said they should call the whole thing off. Sounds familiar?

Then along came entrepreneur Joseph Paxton, head of the spectacular gardens at Chatsworth, Derbyshire. He sketched the winning design on a blotting pad while attending an industrial tribunal and completed the plans in nine days. The revolutionary precursor to today's Millennium Dome was saved.

Abolition of the window tax enabled Paxton to make a vast glass structure, supported by iron and wood. Situated in London's Hyde Park, it was the largest public building ever, and was quickly dubbed the Crystal Palace. Paxton developed its round-arched roofs after studying the ribbing that gives water lily leaves their strength.

The doors opened on May Day 1851, and the Great Exhibition had begun. Prince Albert declared it a vision of man united in self-help, and an image of "peace, love and ready assistance between individuals and nations". Queen Victoria wept with joy. Its 1,650,000 square feet contained more than 100,000 exhibits in a panoply of galleries and displays. There were products from all over the world, exhibitions of every kind of machinery, a natural history collection and a vast concert auditorium that could seat an orchestra and choir of 5,000.

But the architectural miracle did not end with the exhibition. Dismantled, carried on horseback and reassembled on Sydenham Hill, in south London, it must have been the first portable public building, and it stood until a great fire razed it to the ground in 1936.

Brendan O'Malley

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